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Issue #482: October 16–22, 2016

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Q: I generally read all your columns in our paper and learn so much just reading them. But I have never seen this particular subject: My father, who is 84 years old, is forever having problems with his computer. I live 800 miles from him. This is his link to the world for him since he lives about 30+ miles from friends and about 700 miles from family. It is simple things he does that keeps his computer from working, i.e. disconnecting from his wireless printer, etc. It never takes that much time when I am there to fix it but it obviously isn’t possible for me to travel there to fix his computer every time. Talking him through it DOES NOT work. He keeps telling me whatever I am asking him to find on his screen is not there (30 minutes later when I have just about lost all patience with him, he finally sees it). He has a little newer version of our laptop computer. Also, we both have Windows 10. If I could remotely get into his computer, I could possibly help “fix” things with his computer from my own computer. How can I do that or is it possible from home to home?

– Beth C.
Fort Walton Beach, Florida

A: Not only is it possible, Beth, but I’ll tell you how you can do it for free! It’s all a matter of knowing which software to use.

There was a time when most PCs were purely physical things. They had a single processor, which was plugged into a single motherboard, which was installed into a chassis. To this chassis was connected one monitor, one mouse and one keyboard. As a user, all the programs you ran lived in that little box and displayed on that little screen, and for the most part, what you saw was what you got. In modern systems, that is no longer the case. Many aspects of contemporary computers have been virtualized, for lack of a better word. Your single CPU now has multiple cores inside it, and besides making your PC process data faster, this makes it possible to run entire virtual computers (even using different operating systems) all within a single chassis. You can connect multiple monitors, and using USB, you’re no longer limited to one keyboard and mouse. And of course, as you are wanting to do, it is now possible for a PC’s screen to be virtualized, and broadcast to a remote computer via the Internet, where that PC’s mouse and keyboard can be used to control it. In fact, systems can be so virtualized that at the distant end you don’t even have to be on the same technology platform in order to control it. At my annual computerized lights and music show, the Geek Lights on the Corner, I routinely use an iPad while standing out at the street to control and monitor the show, which is running on a Windows laptop in the house. Thanks to high-speed Internet, even distance isn’t a factor. I once controlled the Geek Lights live from several hundred miles away while out of town on a business trip.

There are several choices of software to do all this PC remote control, but my software of choice is called Team Viewer. Besides the fact that it works, and is a breeze to set-up, one of the things I love most about this software is that for non-commercial uses like yours, it is absolutely free. Once the Team Viewer client is up and running on your father’s PC, you can access his system from yours with just a few mouse clicks. Go full-screen, and it’s as if you were sitting at his computer. When you move your mouse, his mouse cursor moves. When you type on your keyboard, letters appear in whatever window has the input focus on his PC. The audio from his system even plays on your system’s speakers. Once so-connected, you can do any kind of maintenance that you need to do, with a couple of limitations. First, you need to remember that your access to the remote machine is virtual, not physical. So, if the power button needs to be pressed, or a USB drive needs to be plugged in, or a CD inserted in the drive, someone needs to be physically present at the computer to perform these actions. The other limitation is that remote desktop functionality requires the PC’s Internet connection, so if the problem you need to solve is with the network connection, you won’t be able to use this method to do any troubleshooting. You can download Team Viewer at tinyurl.com/IGTM-0482. If your father is unable to follow your prompts over the telephone, your biggest challenge may be in getting the initial set up done on his computer. After that, you should have easy access to help him out.

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